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High Plains Joker

Photo by Debra DiPaolo"I WANT TO MAKE WESTERNS," SAYS THE INtense-looking man in the coffee bar. It's the afternoon of the Academy Awards, and in a dozen cafés Larchmont Villagers are lingering over late lunches before they join this city's biggest communal event. Constantine Alexander Payne couldn't care less about this annual ritual, though, preferring to sip his coffee and answer a question that's just been put to him: What would he do if he had complete freedom as a filmmaker? Not just financial carte blanche, but unlimited artistic and -- why not? -- moral freedom. Payne is a youthful 38, though in conversation his thoughtfulness makes him appear solemn. "Alexander," as the actor Matthew Broderick notes, "has a good sense of deadpan humor. He's a little nerdy -- he wears these sports jackets."

"I want to make Westerns," is Payne's reply. "I love larger-than-life landscapes and archetypal characters who work out ethics. The best cinema is about ethics." He will have to wait before he turns a lens on the wild ethical West, however. At the moment he is doing interviews to promote his second feature, Election, which is, nonetheless, all about ethics. Based on Tom Perrotta's novel, the film, directed by Payne and co-authored with his longtime screenwriting partner and friend, Jim Taylor, explores the comic catastrophe that ensues when a high school teacher, played by Broderick, intervenes in a race for student-council president. It's a wry but sympathetic look at good people behaving badly. "Jim and I are drawn to characters like traffic accidents," Payne says, "but we also like people, so when we make fun of them we are implicating ourselves."

The pair's previous film, Citizen Ruth, was a hilarious -- if supremely unsympathetic -- examination of the national abortion debate, in which they filleted both sides. "Jim and I don't like self-righteous, earnest people," Payne says, and not a frame of Citizen Ruth contradicts him, from Burt Reynolds' creepy pro-life bigwig to Swoosie Kurtz's shrill lesbo-feminist, who, like the moral absolutists in Reynolds' camp, mud wrestles for the soul of a pregnant, drug-addled slut played by Laura Dern.

"In the moment of making films, I want to share my observations of life, not of other films," Payne says, dismissing the current trend of packing movies with references to other movies. He deplores the formulaic sump that he believes American cinema has fallen into since the 1970s -- a wasteland of arthritic message films, steroided actioners, mandatory sex and football scenes. For Payne, a film is an opportunity to conduct an inquiry into the nature of human relationships and the folly that often destroys them. Nothing more.

PAYNE'S OWN INTELLECTUAL INQUIRIES BEGAN on the steppes of Nebraska, where he grew up the youngest of three sons in a Greek-American family of businessmen and restaurateurs. (His grandfather had changed the family name from Papadopulis.) In 1975, a tornado blew down Alexander's junior high school, a divine meteorological event that caused his mother to send him to Creighton Prep, Omaha's Jesuit academy. "I'm not Catholic," Payne says, recalling the move to the all-boys school. "At the time I said, 'I'm not going to some Catholic homo farm!' But I went and just loved it, and took four years of Latin. Jesuits encourage an intellectual rigor in a way that I like."

Though he had been in the throes of an "ongoing love affair" with the movies, he told himself he wouldn't take the "boring film-school" route. Instead, he studied history and Spanish literature at Stanford University before applying to New York's Columbia School of Journalism, and lived in Colombia and Spain. And yet, fatefully, one of Palo Alto's charms was the Varsity Theater, a repertory house that screened the very films he loved. By 1984, the cinematic siren song had become irresistible, and he enrolled as a grad student in UCLA's film department, believing that while "USC films are more watchable, UCLA's are more interesting." But first he had to acclimatize to Los Angeles. "It was a great culture shock," Payne remembers. "L.A. doesn't pronounce itself to you, it doesn't say, 'I'm New York,' 'I'm Paris.' Even Omaha says, 'I'm Omaha!' L.A. says, '[unintelligible noise].' It's a raw cloth for which you have to find your own pattern and dyes."

Payne learned the "secret carpentry" of filmmaking at the Westwood campus, where he could eat, breathe and dream movies, sheltered from the financial and political realities of Hollywood. His 1990 thesis project, an hourlong film about an alienated photographer titled The Passion of Martin, garnered him the kind of industry attention most film students can only pray for. "It brought stuff to me," he says somewhat ruefully. "Within a few weeks of leaving film school, I entered the velvet coffin at Universal. They said, 'Write whatever you want to, and if we want to make it you'll direct.' Of course they hated what I wrote, but the studio deal gave me money to live off for three years."

During the next five years, The Passion of Martin made the rounds at film festivals, and Payne worked on a doomed script for Universal called The Coward and directed some shorts for Propaganda Films that appeared on the Playboy Channel -- but ultimately it was five years without making a film in a town that judges people hourly by their résumés and youth. Payne, however, was not a man to be rushed -- he turned down the chance to direct the Gary Oldman thriller Romeo Is Bleeding because he felt the script was weak. Then, in 1992, Payne and Taylor, who were roommates in Silver Lake at the time, became intrigued by newspaper accounts of the abortion debate and some of its more obsessive partisans. Before long they began to write Citizen Ruth. A copy of the script was sent Jeff Goldblum's way; Goldblum, Payne says, encouraged his then-girlfriend Laura Dern to play the part of Ruth Stoops, the druggie who gets knocked up and is adopted first by a right-to-life family headed by Kurtwood Smith, then by Swoosie Kurtz and her lover. They began filming in April 1995.

Although it received enthusiastic reviews, Citizen Ruth did come under fire from some pro-choice quarters. "They're more rational people than the right-to-life side," Payne says, "but almost because of this they're more vulnerable to hypocrisy, and are more savagely attacked in the film than the pro-life people. Some of the negative reviews revealed the liberal biases of the critics. They wanted a clearer pro-choice agenda, and when they didn't get it, faulted the film for being cowardly and taking the easy way out."

Citizen Ruth was also rejected by at least one non-critic. "A screenwriter friend of Alexander's cut off her friendship without even having read the script," Taylor says. "She told him she couldn't accept anyone making fun of the subject of abortion rights." Taylor also believes uneasiness over the film's ideological ambiguities may have caused its distributor, Miramax, to yellow-light the publicity campaign. "They didn't want to exploit Citizen Ruth's political nature, so they held it until after the [1996] election," he says. "Harvey was trying to cozy up to the Democrats," he continues, referring to Harvey Weinstein, Miramax's co-chairman and a Clinton stalwart. "It was kind of weird -- Sling Blade won the Miramax lottery that year and got all the marketing."

CITIZEN RUTH WON PAYNE FAVORABLE PRESS comparisons to Jonathan Swift and Preston Sturges -- which didn't exactly cripple his chances to direct his next project, an MTV-optioned novel satirizing the 1992 presidential campaign. Election, penned by an obscure Harvard writing instructor named Tom Perrotta, had been inspired by Ross Perot's wild-card candidacy, which, for a fleeting moment, seemed to promise a broadening of the American political conversation. In it, a popular high school teacher, mortified by the inevitable rise to power of a ruthless girl in an uncontested student-government race, persuades a football hero to throw his helmet into the ring. Democracy returns as the apathetic student body is suddenly given a real choice -- although things soon fall apart left and right, including the teacher's life.

Payne and Taylor jumped on the project. According to Taylor, who now lives in New York, 99 percent of the time they write in the same room together, each with a keyboard connected to one Macintosh. "We have instant feedback," he says of their collaborative process.

One of the first things the two did was to move the book's setting from New Jersey to Omaha. For Payne this was primarily pragmatic, as his hometown is a place he knows his way around. More philosophically, he's tired of seeing films with an L.A. or New York look. "I was anxious to see the Midwest on film, because you don't see it that much," he says. "I'm sure [such films] are there, but they haven't really got those rhythms."

Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon were cast as the leads, he as the teacher, Jim McAllister, and she as the overachiever candidate, Tracy Flick. Payne had trouble finding the right Hollywood teen actors for the secondary characters, however, and so turned to local kids. It was during a campus tour of an Omaha high school that he met Chris Klein, who got the role of the jock. "I was 18 and coming out of the weight room," Klein remembers, "and we literally bumped into each other. The principal introduced us, and I thought Alexander was a real cool guy. Later he contacted me through the Nebraska Film Commission, and I got the part of Paul Metzler."

The charismatic Klein is one of the year's true screen discoveries -- his Paul Metzler is an affable lug whose unfading optimism and indelible smile protect him from the insults and reversal of fortune that come his way. Payne likens Klein's portrayal to Dostoyevsky's naive Prince Myshkin.

And Klein isn't the film's only revelation. When Payne needed someone to play Paul's sister, Tammy, an alienated loner and emerging lesbian, he remembered being impressed by an audition tape made by a St. Louis teenager named Jessica Campbell, even though up to that point her acting experience had been confined to one Bible infomercial and a TV movie. Today, Campbell, all of 16, recalls the moment she read the script: "Omigod, I thought, it's a lesbian part! A lot of people in St. Louis are conservative about that, but people supported me for doing it, because Tammy's the most caring and sensitive person in the story." Campbell, whose Tammy is the only character to escape with her dignity intact, is riveting as the typical wrong teen living in the wrong town, a role that is demanding in its oscillation between insecurity and anger.

Payne, in fact, would ask a lot of his cast. But though almost no one in Election has a halo, the actors accept- ed their roles because of their unfailing resemblance to real people.

"I think of Jim as human," Broderick says of his character. "He feels very pleased with everything in his life, but he is really quite miserable. Some people need to get in trouble and make a big mistake -- to steal something or wreck a car -- before they can change their life."

Both Klein and Campbell speak of Payne as an exacting taskmaster, but in youthfully affectionate terms. "I thought he was awesome," says Klein. "He made us understand the importance of the work we were doing and to appreciate the tenacity it took to get the shot we wanted to get." Recalls Campbell: "Omigosh, he was one of the most incredible, nice, funny people I've met! He didn't just stand there and say, 'Do this.' He showed you what he wanted from you."

By all accounts, the care and respect between actors and director were mutual, with Payne "looking out" for their characters, most of whom are so humiliated during the film. "We were very protective of Tammy," he says by way of example, "even when mixing her sound, because she is smart and vulnerable." As Taylor notes, "The best thing about Alexander is that he listens to his own instincts, but he's not a control freak."

By using a mix of pros and ordinary high school students, Payne created an authentic diorama of small-town teen angst. "They made the professionals look more real," he says of the kids, "and the professionals made the nonprofessionals look better." In preparation for the shooting, Payne took his cast around Omaha to hang out. "It was nice," Broderick says. "We never felt like a bunch of California people descending on a town."

WHEN FILMING WAS OVER, PAYNE AND TAYLOR REalized they had a problem on their hands that would push back the film's release date: Election's ending, a faithful re-creation of the novel's bittersweet conclusion, just wasn't working in test screenings. Though they tried to stick with it as long as possible, they knew that it didn't fit their script, which was more comical than Perrotta's melancholy novel.

"We were a little too slavish to the book," Taylor says, "and we held on to its ending for a long time -- one of the reasons I wanted to adapt the book was because of its ending." But that final scene, a quiet moment of reconciliation between Mr. McAllister and Tracy in which she asks her former nemesis to sign her yearbook, had to go.

"I saw the film with a small audience," recalls Broderick. "I kind of liked the ending, but I could feel the audience turn away from it."

So the crew moved to New York and Washington, D.C., where the story now wraps on a note of comic triumph on McAllister's part. "It was a rare case," Payne believes, "of making the ending of a Hollywood film more cynical than the original."

Now that the film is out, Payne and Taylor are concerned with a more familiar problem: marketing. Are fickle American audiences ready for another Rushmore, comparisons with which are inevitable? "They don't know how to market it," Payne says bluntly of his distributors, Paramount. First conceived by its producers as a "teen film," then reappraised by them as an adult satire set in a high school, Election is nevertheless positioned on its Web page as the former. Today, Payne only half-ironically mentions how he and Taylor "want to write some articles discussing the selling of Election," because "quality is not as important as marketing elements in a film. Being a young American filmmaker is worse than making films under communism, because the commercial and ideological exigencies are so strict that they suppress creativity."

Payne admits his desire to make Westerns in a time when they have all but vanished from our screens or, at least today, from this year's Oscars. In a way it's a sensible choice, though, for this serious lover of film who only the week before spent time at Akira Kurosawa's grave while visiting Tokyo. The West and the Western, after all, are where Americans turn in times of social turmoil and identity crises, from Stagecoach in the Depression to The Wild Bunch in the Age of Acid. In Election, Payne, ever the melancholic joker, has captured on the modern prairie a sweet sadness that lies at the heart of the American malaise -- a malaise grounded in bad faith, and that extends to his own profession.

"The most heinous shift in American films," he says, "is that they reinforce good things like 'couples' and 'relationships.' I think films have to have a little danger and should go further in terms of questioning things -- maybe everything we know is wrong, maybe we are all profoundly fucked up, and what can we do about it?"

The interview ends with Payne about to begin the waiting game of learning how the public and critics will respond to Election. What would he enjoy most in reading the reviews? "The flattery of being understood," he says with a very slight smile.

 

See Film for Manohla Dargis' review of Election.


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